That you’re upset or thrilled that Mulan is coming to Disney+ is why it was the right test case for releasing a mega-budget tentpole to PVOD.
The 60-second Mulan commercial, one which explicitly proclaims the film as being exclusive to Disney
+, doesn’t show us much that the other trailers hadn’t already revealed. Honestly, the opening beat made me worry that they were going to spoil the film’s best action sequence, but fear not, they cut away before they give away the game. But yes, Mulan will be skipping theaters in America (and other territories where Disney+ is available) in favor of a PVOD release.
There’s been plenty of handwringing, speculation and pontification over what Disney’s decision means in the broad scheme of things. Truth be told, we won’t know much until we see how many of the 60.5 million Disney+ subscribers actually fork over an additional $29.99 to watch the movie instead of waiting for its general arrival on Disney+ and/or a more conventional digital and physical media release.
If the film snags, say, five million subscribers and thus $150 million in “every penny goes to Disney” revenue, that’s a success. It would be the equivalent of $300 million in theatrical grosses, about equal to (sans inflation) the original global gross of 1998’s animated Mulan. Add that to whatever it grosses in China and elsewhere around the world in conventional theatrical play, and I’d argue that it was a success. But if nobody splurges, well, then it’s not really a game-changer.
Yes, it stinks that a $200 million action epic starring Chinese heroes and Chinese villains, with a (white) female director no less, is skipping domestic theaters. However, by virtue of its singular nature and its size/scale, it was an ideal lab rat for this kind of experiment. If Disney was going to try and release an A-level theatrical feature as a PVOD title, it had to be an A-level feature, one that (absent the pandemic) would likely have been a big global box office hit.
The One and Only Ivan or Artemis Fowl weren’t going to cut it, and Black Widow was both likely to be a bigger theatrical hit and would risk creating an expectation that future MCU movies would go to PVOD. That’s why, even if this does work, I’d expect Pixar’s Soul to skip theaters as opposed to the Scarlett Johansson-led MCU prequel. Yes, it would stink that Pixar’s first feature with a Black leading man (Jamie Foxx) would skip theaters, but that’s one of the cruel realities of a pandemic shutting down Hollywood on this year of all years.
Yes, we’ve seen a number of female-fronted, minority-fronted and/or female-minority-directed flicks that were intended for theatrical that ended up on PVOD or on a streaming platform. That’s partially because there were quite a few high(er) profile titles intended for theaters this year that happened to star or be directed by “not a white guy.” Of course, in even a pre-coronavirus theatrical landscape, films like The High Note, Antebellum, Run and The Lovebirds would have been (at best) commercial coin tosses. With streaming and VOD now a primary viewing source for the folks who used to go to the movies just to see a movie, non-event flicks have been struggling for five years.
Even Universal’s The King of Staten Island (available on electronic-sell-through today) would have been far less likely to break out than previous Judd Apatow character comedies, to say nothing of likely bombs like Warner Bros.’ Scoob!, Disney’s Artemis Fowl and Focus’ Jon Stewart-directed political comedy Irresistible. Even Trolls: World Tour was a coin toss, especially after The Secret Life of Pets 2, The LEGO Movie 2 and The Angry Birds Movie 2 fell well below their respective predecessors last year. One likely result of the pandemic is a further emphasis, by audience members, on event movies.
When domestic theaters do reopen, Hollywood has enough to worry about sweating over whether anyone shows up to what otherwise would have been surefire hits like Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow and No Time to Die. Far below those tentpoles in terms of priority would be the deluge of old-school studio programmers and genre flicks that everyone likes to claim Hollywood never makes mostly because they are willfully oblivious to their respective existence. While you can argue moviegoers may risk life and limb to see Tenet or Black Widow in theaters, they probably wouldn’t for Run or Antebellum.
As such, yes, we are probably going to see a lot more “just a movie” studio offerings that were once intended for theatrical release end up going PVOD or being sold to Netflix
, HBO Max, Hulu or Amazon
. And there’s a case to be made that those films will thrive as convenient at-home offerings, with their “intended for theaters” prestige and production values putting them above streaming-specific features. Dave Batista’s winning action comedy My Spy would probably have died badly in theaters, but it has amassed enough viewers on Amazon to potentially justify a sequel.
The irony of all of this, at least for now, is that many of the most high-profile streaming and PVOD titles are standing out from the pack precisely because they were intended for theaters. Would Scoob! performed as well as just the latest of over 35 direct-to-DVD Scooby-Doo features? Had Niki Caro’s Mulan not been a $200 million action spectacular initially intended for theaters, would the anticipation be that much higher than Lady and the Tramp? That’s the conundrum, and why it had to be a movie as big as Mulan. Even if these “intended for theaters” flicks are doing well at home, that’s still partially because they were intended for theaters.
The endgame for movie theaters was always going to be a situation whereby only the biggest and most IMAX-friendly flicks played in wide theatrical release, with the rest going to streaming or VOD (give or take limited wide theatrical release as a glorified advertisement for the at-home premiere). That’s been the grim future for awhile, and the global theatrical shutdown only hastened the process. The question is whether audiences will be as excited, and as willing to shell out extra money, for “theater-quality” features that were intended for streaming or VOD all along.